Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Another Book about Pius IX

The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, by David I. Kertzer (Random House, 2018).

Pope Saint John XXIII was famously devoted to the memory of his now-beatified, 19th-century predecessor Pope Pius IX, writing in 1959: "I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." (He did not live to do as he had hoped. Instead it was Pope Saint John Paul II who finally beatified Pius IX - together with John XXIII - on September 3, 2000.) 

The triumphs and sufferings of Pius IX form the centerpiece of the Church's troubled voyage through the 19th century. That century began with the papacy at one of its lowest levels of power and prestige with election of Pope Pius VII in Venice, where the papacy was in effect in exile from Rome then occupied by Napoleon. It ended with Pope Leo XIII, bereft of political power and a self-styled "prisoner of the Vatican," but with the papacy experiencing renewed and heightened spiritual and moral prestige. In between, came the long and conflict-ridden pontificate of Pius IX.

David Kertzer is already the author of several acclaimed books on the papacy and Italian religion and politics (most notably his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe). In this latest work, he tackles the complex story of Pope Pius IX's early, failed flirtation with liberalism and Italian nationalism that culminated in the Roman revolution of 1848 and the Pope's exile - and eventual return thanks to foreign military assistance. It represents a small slice of Pius IX's extremely long pontificate, but it was an important moment in papal and European history - the brief experiment in which the Pope allied himself (or seemed at any rate to ally himself) with liberalism and Italian nationalism and how the failure of that experiment forced the Pope on a more reactionary path, which set the stage for all subsequent Church history.

Kertzer's account is quite detailed, The reader will learn more about the day-to-day political, military, and diplomatic developments during that period than he or she probably ever expected to know. The book is also a good historical lesson in the importance of personalities in international relations. That said, he seems to want to make the episode even more decisive than it necessarily was, thanks to the author's historical preoccupation with and contemporary concern about the survival of theocratic anti-modern, anti-liberalism.

To be sure, the events described in the book were most decisive for Pius IX and his subsequent policies - both his internal Church policy and his external political policy. Those events were likewise most decisive in finally forging the path Italian nationalism would have to take. With the Pope as an inevitable obstacle, the only viable vehicle for Italian nationalism and eventual unification was was the Piedmontese Savoyard monarchy with its constitutional and liberal institutions. But, while extremely decisive for Italy's future, its seems an exaggeration to suggest, as Kertzer seems to be suggesting, that these events were decisive for the future of absolutism in Europe. On the contrary, one could contend that absolutism was already doomed in Europe everywhere west of Russia. Its vestigial survival in Rome was entirely a consequence of the papacy's uniquely religious character. The dual conviction that the temporal power was essential for the maintenance of the Pope's religious mission and that for religious reasons the temporary power had to be absolutist and clerical created a completely unique context in Rome, which was of no avail to other would-be absolute monarchs. 

Two aspects of the story that really seem to scream for attention are its account of the popular hostility to priestly government and the papal preoccupation with the absolute necessity of the temporal power. Probably more than anything else, the former was decisive in this story. (There remains a perennial lesson in that, which we can recognize in the repeated pattern in places where the clergy have - or have appeared to have - exercised disproportionate political power, e.g., modern Spain and modern Ireland). Historically, had Pius and his advisers been able and willing (neither of which they were) to create an efficient lay-administered civil government under papal sovereignty, it is arguable that the popular hostility to the temporal power would have been considerably less intense, with correspondingly different results. That would not necessarily have been sufficient to counter the long-term appeal of Italian nationalism and unification, which ultimately only the House of Savoy could accomplish, which in turn highlights the salience of the second problem of the persistent commitment to holding on to the temporal power.

While no one can seriously underestimate how the eventual loss of the temporal power in 1870 ultimately worked in the long term to the Church's advantage, history makes it easy to understand why the temporal power was perceived as essential. After all, even now in its vestigial and largely symbolic form, the Pope's politically independent status as a sovereign in international law, while perhaps not an absolutely unmixed blessing, has repeatedly proved itself to be much more of an asset than a burden. 

A final lesson which Kertzer's account highlights is the ephemeral nature of political popularity and the danger of any political leader's over-eagerly seeking to cultivate such popularity. The inherent incompatibility between Pius IX's attempt to win popular acclaim and his transcendent institutional mission was but a special historical illustration of the universal challenge that the desire for popular approval poses for any leader who has an institutional mission that goes beyond the transience of short-term popular approbation.

No comments:

Post a Comment